Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Attack Nodes: Running From The Gun

This entry (and most that proceeded and will follow) is a result of a summer-long Noel Mazzone discussion between hemlock and I.  Mazzone represents the offensive innovation of the 90s maturing and adapting to the constantly changing world of football. If you’re over 30, you may be able to appreciate how an imaginative spark can ripple into a wave of change as time passes, sometimes taking decades to blossom. Specifically, how the things done in the late 80’s ended up shaping the zeitgeist of football we know today.

The previous posts featuring the Alex Gibbs staff clinic was simply a prelude to the larger focus here. The stretch clinic illustrated the brainstorming involved as offenses adapt to living in the gun full-time (“we’re not in Kansas anymore”).

As those videos documented, there came a time when Gibbs just threw out tight zone because it wasn't worth investing in as he was getting a favorable return with stretch.  While zone and stretch share similarities, many offenses are finding it is easier to just drop one or the other because they just don't have enough time to become proficient in the necessary skills to run them both.

While I believe there are some distinct “families” emerging here, I don’t truly believe there is a right or wrong path (both have considerable merit). With that, I will preface this with the disclaimer that most run attacks aren’t as codified as they will be depicted here. In this post, I’ll attempt to illustrate what issues offenses face by choosing a particular path.   This post won’t offer any absolutes or hidden truths, its just an editorial on where many offenses are headed.

Nearly two decades since Dennis Erickson made the above comments regarding his philosophy, that same tenet holds true for Mazzone. You spread the formation (horizontally) to run the ball. You aren’t running the ball to areas of the field where you are drawing defenders to (outside). With one-back, you empty the box to make running inside easier (by eliminating defenders by alignment) with the added dimension of utilizing outside receivers.
I believe the most interesting thing we can witness from the Arizona State Offense is how truly simple it is (we’ll get into greater detail later, but much can be seen by examining their protection).  It is this simplicity that allows it to be so effective and helps package the entire offense into easily distilled decisions for the quarterback. Mazzone’s run game is an extension of galvanized concepts he has carried with him during his career.

What is distinct about Mazzone is how he’s held true to that Erickson philosophy.  He doesn’t run stretch, he’ll run zone, zone read and trap, but for perimeter attacks, it is reduced to flash, tunnel, slow screens, and swing from play-action.  This isn’t unlike West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez or Tulsa under Herb Hand and Gus Malzahn, who were renowned for speed sweeps and power, but made their living off of zone and zone-read options.
For a 4-wide gun offense, zone can serve as the sprint-draw of the 2-back offense; an effective way to gain a numeric advantage against a defense with minimal defenders in the box.  Zone, by itself, would allow the offense to get 5 linemen on 5 defenders and insure at least 1 double-team at the point-of-attack. With the way Mazzone packages his offense, the run game is actually able to further weaken the integrity of the defensive front by systematically isolating backside defenders with a horizontal stretch (making the play-side C-G-T the only crucial blocks needed). With zone-read, the tight zone action can be used to:
  • manipulate the backside defensive end into caving down inside and open up the quarterback keep (zone-read)
  • keep the WILB flat-footed and out of position to defend the backside snag or F quick (flare)
  • hold the play-side safety longer to provide an extremely clear read to run verticals against
  OUTSIDE   The other end of the spectrum here is where most other teams are at in terms of the spread run game, using stretch as the primary means of running the ball. This creates a bit of a quandary that opens a door of additional answers.
With a tight end
When you operate in a true one-back gun environment without a tight end, running stretch can be a challenge.  Without a tight end, you need the play-side tackle to reach an athletic defensive end who is in pass-rush mode for the better part of the game.
Without a tight end
You are also aiming for an area where you’ve already drawn defenders to by alignment (perimeter). This can be a cheap way of gaining yards (relying on cutting and reaching on the line), much like flash screens, where you don’t need killer blocks to gain positive yards. You don’t have to be tremendously athletic to reach a defender, but the better the athlete, the better the backside runs will be (because your backside guard/tackle can actually get close enough to cut backside linebackers).
  If you’re aiming point is to a ghost tight end, the read will most often be closed or consistently muddy for the runner. With all linemen bucket-step reaching play-side, it really amounts to just cutting off/getting in the way of defenders. Because that second down defender probably won’t get reached, he will impede the runner from actually bouncing outside (with second-level defenders gap filling inside of him), leaving the cut back the only option. clip_image020 To make up for this liability, you can attempt to fortify your read by adding another blocker (back or tight end) and simply try to invest more resources to improving the run (read).  This now invites more defenders back into the box which works contrary to the reason most spread offenses “spread”. clip_image022
Add a back to insure your chances at the point of attack
The other alternative to making stretch work is to rely on the one guy your “spread” offense is centered around, the quarterback, to assume a dual-role as a runner.
Make your quarterback a runner (BOSS)
  This limited end-game is what leads most gun offenses to two answers.
  • Use the bucket-step skill set of stretch and add to it by skip-pulling backside linemen for power (adding blockers to the POA)
  • Purposely use stretch action to attack inside voids created by pursuit
clip_image025by simply drop-setting the backside tackle to handle the backside end,
now the horizontal stretch on the backside linebacker becomes more pronounced.
As an illustration, we’ll use Tony Franklin as the contrast to Mazzone’s run game, though there are many who share the same philosophy of Franklin.  Another “coach’s coach”, Franklin has evolved his offense tremendously over the past decade and has been forced to find answers with limited talent.  The current version of his offense is largely owed to Dwight Dasher during his time at Middle Tennessee, where there was a heavy reliance on stretch and dash.  While at Louisiana Tech, Franklin began tapping into these skill sets more due to the reliance on running back, Lennon Creer (considerably more two-back, “wild dog”, truck, and power).  2011 will likely feature more of the same with the addition of a more mobile passer in Colby Cameron (update: it appears 17-year old Nick Isham is now the starter).
  These ‘variations on a theme’ may be required to survive if stretch is going to be the source of your gun run game.  While all of these counters off of stretch action open up avenues of stress for a defense (it provides a prescription for every symptom), they also require your offense to carry more tools into a game (more plays).   We’ve gone over several of these adaptations before and we don’t intend on covering old ground in this post. The point is to illustrate that current meme of stretch offenses centers around heavily exploiting backside horizontal voids, call it your “stretch counter”, if you will.
Stretch read (Flame/Fire)
You may need to invest more resources in your run game, but the potential for a greater dividend is there.  That being said, throwing a flash screen off your inside zone run action is one thing, it can become an even more explosive off of stretch action (see below) because of how it creates an inside void for the receiver to run through.
This all just accentuates the recurring theme that as things evolve and adapt, it all is cyclical. Trends and flavors of strategy have to remain organic and willing to adapt to their environment to survive.

There isn't any assertion here on which method is the best.  I am attempting to highlight the efficiency of one method over another.  Both offensive styles will run nearly the same passing concepts, both 5-step, quick, and screens.  The question would be posed on how much of a return should you expect on what is needed to be invested to make your run game from the gun work ( when operating from a true 4-wide, sans tight end, environment )?  To base your run game out of stretch when you don't use a tight end can become expensive, because it will necessitate the offense to incorporate the many variations to keep it viable.

** Hemlock has followed this with additional perspectives on Noel Mazzone and how a few concepts have evolved through the last decade and how Mazzone marries it altogether.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Alex Gibbs: Stretch/Gun Run Developments (Part 2)

Part two of the chalk talk video.


After covering Gibbs’ system and reviewing film examples in the first 4 ½ hours, the coaches assess Florida’s attempts at running zone-read and the feasibility of adding a give-read element to stretch from the gun (final 3 ½ hours).

We will follow shortly with an editorial post on the direction and choices many spread offenses have been  facing in recent years. Part I

Editorial / Summary

Monday, August 22, 2011

Alex Gibbs: Stretch/Gun Run Developments (Part 1)

There are great coaches, legendary coaches, and then there is Alex Gibbs.

Alex Gibbs, while not the architect of zone and stretch, certainly became the patriarch of the most productive run concept in the past three decades.  Since “officially” retiring with Atlanta, but doing heavy consultation work with Houston and Seattle (and we can clearly see his thumbprints there), Alex Gibbs has remained an integral part in advancing the art of the run game.

Here may be the beginning and end to your education on stretch runs and how the concept has evolved through reduction in the past five years (and adapting itself to the proliferation of the gun).  Gibbs sits down with Steve Addazio (now head coach at Temple), Dan Mullen (now head coach at Miss State) and the rest of the Florida staff brainstorming how they can improve their gun run game after Chris Leak left.  Gibbs begins by explaining his entire system in great detail, going over the terminology that is integral to how his stretch runs are packaged, how his quarterback in Atlanta evolved the game, and the new challenges of today presented by defenses out of the gun (and more)…..

We will provide this video as a preface, offer up the second-half of the video later in the week, then follow-up with how many spread teams have codified their run game (and how it ties into what Mazzone is doing at Arizona State) into two distinct families (and the advantages of each).

Sit down, grab a notebook, and enjoy…..

Part II

Editorial / Summary

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Last season, Arizona State was, at least in terms of wins and losses, a very average team. After all, ASU won on six games, two of which against FCS teams. But for anybody who watched ASU play last year, it was clear that they were, perhaps, the best 6-6 team in the land. I saw them play live at Camp Randall against the Badgers and remember walking away from the game with two thoughts: 1) This team will get better as the year goes on and they will peak in November; 2) Their offense is really neat and will undoubtedly be the subject of much scrutiny in the offseason, assuming, of course, that they get it down.

Undoubtedly, ASU improved, and without question, it was due primarily to the great strides they made mastering Noel Mazzone’s new offensive scheme. In the ensuing series of posts leading up the start of the new season I will discuss in some depth the nuances of ASU’s offense. While one of my aims is clearly to shed some light on what I believe are exciting advances in the passing game, another one of my goals is to discuss the offensive thought of one of the game’s most innovative, but frequently overlooked, offensive thinkers, a coach, who, if things bounce the way they should this year, could very well end up the next HC of the University of New Mexico – Noel Mazzone. So while I will definitely talk about what Coach Mazzone is doing at ASU now, I will also provide a detailed sketch of the evolution of his offensive thought over the years, from his years at TCU of the old Southwest Conference to the Jets of the NFL.

First, I think it would be helpful to provide a little immediate background to his current position. Dennis Erickson hired Noel Mazzone after the conclusion of the 2009 season. He replaced Erickson’s longtime friend, Rich Olson. Erickson’s decision to hire Mazzone represented a change in his offensive thinking, for while Erickson has always been a spread one-back coach, he was always more of a vertical stem, option route guy who, by and large, never invested much in the type of layered, over-under schemes for which Mazzone made his reputation.

Why Mazzone?

I guess the first question that needs to be asked is: What is so special about Mazzone’s offense that it merits such close scrutiny. I mean, sure, it was extremely effective last year, put up tons a points, even more yardage, and was, overall, very exciting, but isn’t it just another spread offense? Undoubtedly, all of this is true, but there are some differences in Mazzone’s approach that are clearly worth studying, not because they are necessarily better than those practiced by other coaches, such as Mike Leach, Tony Franklin, or June Jones, to name only three, but because it shows how spread football is progressing by returning to its origins.

In general, most pass-heavy spread offenses employ man protection schemes. This is not something unique only to Air Raid teams, but the vast majority of single / empty spread offenses. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons, I believe, is that the rise of single and empty environments coincided with that of the fire zone. To appreciate this we need to have a little history in regards the development of slide protection. Generally speaking, sliding as a means of protecting the quarterback came into vogue during the early 1980s as a way of dealing with inside and outside pressure to the quarterback’s blindside with a single move. In a sense, sliding away from the call was a way of narrowing the quarterback’s field of vision, making it so that he would not have to worry about unexpected pressure by an inside backer through the “B” gap or number 4 flying off the edge.

By and large, sliding was how most one-back teams protected during this period. But there have always been some issues related to stunts and games along the front that posed some real problems for slide teams. In particular, any type of stunt that crosses the face of the center, regardless of direction, threatens the integrity of the protection, in part, because of the kick-slide technique upon which the protection is predicated. (Matt, I’m thinking here of dogs, but of specific stunts, like the “t-chain” in which the 3 and the 4I or 5 slant the A and B gaps respectively with the shade ripping off their backsides into the opposite C) This type of movement exposes the twin problems of “depth” and “center” of the scheme; for unlike vertical set man teams, and I’m not just talking here about Air Raid programs, units that slide gain very little depth and separation from the defensive front after the snap. Consequently, any quick horizontal movement across the line’s fulcrum, the center, takes advantage of center’s compromised base, that is, the side to which he steps in order to combo on the shade with the adjacent guard or post on the one technique while keeping an eye on the stacked backer. While on paper that step may seem inconsequential, it places the center in a compromised position from which it is difficult to play catch up with any type of hard crossing action. For this reason, many one-back teams began to rely more on vertical set man schemes that enables the line to gain depth in order to “sort” and dissect the pressure as it comes.

Without question, I think we can see why coaches, especially in recent years, chose to pursue man schemes, that while requiring more tweaking on a week to week basis, nevertheless, at least until recently, offered more tactical leeway for the players themselves, as well as more strategic flexibility for the coaches in terms of maximizing the number of people they could release on any given play. I bring this up because with the advent and development of fire zone packages, sliding became increasingly costly in the sense that in order to protect the QB teams were forced to limit the number of receivers they could release on a given route, which, if we pause to think for a second, simply plays into strengths of any fire zone coverage by eliminating the very receivers for which any five man pressure scheme fails to account.

And this is what makes what Noel Mazzone is doing so interesting, because unlike everybody else, ASU is very much a slide team, and one, mind you, that has hardly any issues with protection. Now, before getting into the nitty-gritty of his protections packages, let’s briefly consider why Mazzone chooses to slide. Mazzone’s reasons for sliding are simple and can be traced back to his days at Auburn. In a word, Mazzone wants the QB to focus on one thing and one thing only: THROWING TO VOIDS. That is to say, Mazzone does not want, in no uncertain terms, for the QB to be concerned with what the defense is doing; the QB’s sole job is to focus on delivering the ball. And what’s interesting about this is that because his goal to get five players out as much as possible, Mazzone, in a sense, seems to want to make it schematically impossible for the QB to bring another blocker back into the formation, and his way of doing so is to make the QB feel protected by securing the side of the field to where there is no grass.

I know that the above statement seems somewhat strange, but it really is keeping completely with the old Hal Mumme maxim of throwing the ball to the grass. But in order to appreciate this point and its import to how Mazzone slides today, let’s say a word or two about basic slide protection.

Below is basic slide protection, or what ASU today calls “ACT,” versus what I like to call “country stack,” or your garden variety 42 or 44 look.

So, working from right to left, this is what we have:

RT: Man on
RG: Man on
C: Linda call to the Mike stacked over the shade; post on the shade with the guard
LG: Set with the Center on the shade
LG: Man outside; key Will backer for possible Joker call.
RB: Key Sam to Adjuster/Strong Safety; responsible for most inside threat.
QB: Throw the Void (this is not Hot; more on this in future posts)

Now, I think the fundamentals of this protection are all fairly self evident. If the tackle senses that number four is going to come, he will make a Joker call, which will, depending on whether it’s an even or odd front, trigger either a three or four man slide to that side beginning with the first uncovered lineman.

Generally speaking, this scheme is fairly stable in that the line slides opposite the back in order to secure the QB’s backside thus making the side to which the back is checked to the call side, regardless of how many receivers are deployed there.

But what happens if the scheme, regardless of whether there is a back behind the line or not, is essentially an empty one with no check release? For all intent purposes, this nothing really changes for the line, with the exception that now the front side tackle has what amounts to a duel read in that he must eye the Sam backer and be ready to pick up the nearest inside threat, thus making the adjuster backer the sole responsibility of the QB.

As noted earlier, one of the strengths of this approach is its stability, the fact that the QB know from the very beginning that his backside is, at least in principle, secure, thus placing everything else firmly within his immediate line of vision. But this has also been one of the scheme’s greatest drawbacks, especially in the wake of the fire zone craze, because DC’s could always set their fronts, stunts, games, and fire packages to the back’s call, making moot, in effect, the very purpose of the slide itself.

Herein lies the beauty of Mazzone’s innovation, one that I believe, at some level or another, reflects the influence of the Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, and other Air Raid coaches: rather than simply slide away from the back, Mazzone freed his line to slide to where the defense was on the field, which is another way of saying, away from the grass and towards where the defense had the potential to deploy the most people.

On the surface this sounds odd, but it really makes quite a bit of sense, because across the football field there are really only three generic types of zone pressure: boundary, middle, field. Moreover, most teams, as well as conferences, for that matter, especially at the college level, usually have signature pressure packages and preferences. For example, both the Pac 12 and Big 12 are heavy field pressure conferences. Despite the fact that boundary pressure is easier to disguise, most programs in these conferences prefer to fire it up from the field, so this is where their defensive numbers are going to be. Below are two diagrams, the first offering a global perspective, the second illustrating how ASU slides to the numbers.

This is your standard field blitz from a three man front. There are different ways to package this concept, but the nuts and bolts of it are pretty simple. For the same reasons, it should be easy to see where the defense is putting its numbers. If we count the nose, we get six players to the field, leaving only five to the boundary. Yet if we were to employ a standard slide here away from the back, it immediately becomes evident that we would, in effect, be protecting away from the threat. But as the diagram below illustrates, ASU’s answer enables them to account for this with no difficulty.

So, rather than have his line slide into the boundary away from the pressure, Mazzone has his guys slide into it with a four man slide that not only seals off the interior paths of pursuit to the quarterback, but the edge as well, leaving the boundary tackle to ride the end out with the back checking inside out from Mike to Sam.

The one question that remains, however, is whether or not the frontside is now where the back ends up or his original position? Simply put, the frontside remains the side of the back’s original alignment. Now, I recognize that some may say, and rightfully so, that doesn’t this defeat the purpose of slide protection; after all, the reason coaches slide is to secure the backside, right? My answer to this is that that the secure side needs to be the side from wherever the pressure is coming from; it is senseless to protect the QB’s backside if there’s more grass there than there are jerseys with numbers on them.

Concluding Remarks:

In closing, I think it’s necessary to note that a vertical set man scheme is just as up to the task as sliding. Why, then, does Mazzone slide? In addition to the reasons outlined at the beginning of this piece, we should consider the place of the drop-back game within the whole of his offense. One reason Mazzone continues to slide is because of the extent to which his quick, screen, and zone games are integrated into a near seamless whole with his dropback package. In essence, Mazzone views these not as separate aspects of the offense, but as protective extensions of his core passing game. And by “protective” I mean that they tie so well into his slide protection scheme not only tactically, that is, how they appear to the defense, but also, and perhaps more importantly, pedagogically for his offense’s players. So, from a global perspective, provides Mazzone with a flexible way of protecting the QB that also enables the other central components of his relatively simple, if not reductionist, yet incredibly dynamic offensive system.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

This ain’t your Mouse’s Run and Shoot

I’d like to take this opportunity to take a look at a lesser known variation of the run and shoot.

now attack

Hemlock, another contributor on this site, has fantastic insight into the Mouse/Jenkins/Jones version of the Run and Shoot that found it’s way into the NFL level in the early 90’s. The origins of that version of Run and Shoot, however, not only looked different in terms of plays and philosophy of attack, but also had a lesser known evolutionary branch that was basically limited to the Midwest United States, especially Indiana.

Glenn “Tiger” Ellison’s book should be required reading for all coaches, if for nothing else then the beginnings of the book where he talks about how he came to develop (truly create) an offense. More importantly, it details how his “coaching epiphany” allowed him to break out of the monotony of the generic offense and football philosophy which surrounded him.

(For the purists, forgive my shortened paraphrase)

Ellison was a coach at Middletown High School in Ohio, and it 1958 he found himself staring down a 1-4 record. Like Ohio State, under the guidance of Woody Hayes at the time, most high school teams relied on the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” approach. When things weren’t working, the players and coaches simply had to try harder. As Ellison noted, the idea was if the coaching staff and the 11 offensive players poured every ounce of themselves into the play, they could WILL themselves to at least 3 yards. This is a great thought. However, when you fail (and in competitive sport, there is always a loser), your failure is attributed to either your laziness, your inability to motivate, or both.

Ellison, like many football coaches, found himself putting more pressure on his staff, who put more pressure on the players, who in turn saw their execution and confidence falter.

It was during a trip to the park, probably to wonder about his job security, that Ellison had his epiphany. There, a group of kids were playing a pickup game of 2-hand touch football. Ellison watched as the QB, throwing on the run, would release the football to a receiver breaking toward grass. There was no diagram, no play call to follow, just “run out there and get open”.

I’d like to take a timeout to talk about Bob Gibson. Yeah, I know, way out of left field (no pun intended), but please bear with me.


In 1968, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, which is a record for the live ball era, and was just off the MLB record of .96 set during the dead ball era. Gibson was so dominant that after the 1968 season, MLB lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches to give hitters a fighting chance.

During one game in the 68’ season, Bob gave up a single to the opposing pitcher, who was a notoriously bad batter. When asked by a reporter how he managed a hit off baseball’s most dominant hurler, the pitcher replied: “I closed my eyes, and I swung like hell!”

That, is exactly what Ellison started to do with his team at Middletown.

From the micro-managing, ultra-conservative, fist pounding coach came this new philosophy:

1.) Go reckless!

2.) Stay loose!

3.) Score now!

Practices became laid back. If it wasn’t fun, why were we doing it? Instead of detailing the quarterback’s mechanics and the receiver’s route stem and break, the coaching point became “you run out there, he’ll get open, and you throw it”.

Ellison spent the rest of that year operating out of the lonesome polecat, winning his remaining games. The following season, he add a little more systemization and developed a double wide, double slot set that is so recognizable as “Run and Shoot” today. It is important to realize that while he did add some structure to his offense, he now approached his problems from a pragmatic point of view, rather than a tacit, “this is the way we’ve always done it”/”everyone else does it this way” approach. The greatest minds in any field think this way. Anyway, he went on to be wildly successful, and even became an assistant for Woody Hayes at Ohio State.

Another quick aside: One of Ellison’s most prolific passing concepts was “Gangster”, which began by motioning into trips (which started the idea of using motion to identify coverage). Gangster was the grandfather of our modern day Go route, and basically looked like a flood route with the “deep out” guy simply finding grass.


The quarterback would roll right with the FB blocking and throw on the run. Ellison also gave his quarterback the unheard of freedom to roll the opposite way whenever he felt like it to throw what was essentially the choice route. Very cool.

Two coaches picked up on the basic structure and philosophy of Ellison. The first one you all know about. The second was a head coach at small private school in southern Indiana called Franklin College. His name was Stewart “Red” Faught. Facing limited scholarships, limited staff, and limited, well, just about everything else, Coach Faught knew trying to win the old way would not work. He needed an edge, and he found it in the animal Ellison created.

The main difference between Mouse’s version and Red’s version of the run and shoot lay not only in route structure, but in the philosophy of attack. Make no mistake, Red was shocking the folks in Indiana with how much he was throwing the football. Coach Faught said when the quarterback got off the bus he wanted the ball in the air until he got back on. One of my favorite Redism is: “Balance?! Hell, pass!”

However, Red’s version did include some wing-T run game elements whose primary function was to set up one of the most devastating Play Action Passing and Play Action Screen games ever devised. More than once, I’ve heard coaches who really knew him say he ran just enough for you to believe the play fakes.

Red’s run game included some base inside runs, and as expected, the draw. Later on, Red would become the offensive coordinator at Georgetown College (which, despite the fact they had several more scholarships, Red held a winning record against while at Franklin) and he added some triple option, setting the foundation for Georgetown to win the 2000 and 2001 NAIA national championship.

For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on his sweep and trap series. For those versed in the “fun” terminology that Ellison created, that would be “Texas” and “Popcorn”.

One of the improvements Red made to the run and shoot was use of Rocket Sweep. Ellison’s version utilized a orbit sweep with the FB leading off the edge. As early as the 1970’s Franklin College was running the Rocket, and few teams could keep up. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Ted Seay’s Wild Bunch manual needs to do so right now for the best explanation I’ve heard for the power of the Rocket Sweep.


While not from the same formation, this is the best diagram of Rocket Sweep I could find on Google…..and I did spend over 30 seconds looking.

The slot, sent in deep motion, should be behind the FB when the ball is snapped. The QB reverses out and pitches. The slot should catch the ball just as he is breaking the tackle box. Because they will never make a play, every down lineman inside a 5 technique can be left unblocked (many times, the 5 tech can’t make a play either and can be ignored), allowing offensive linemen to scramble to the second and third level.

The sweet part of rocket how it demands that the defense move pre-snap, because after we snap the ball you will be out of position. Obviously, like any sweep, you stop the Rocket by keeping contain and making the runner cut back into the defensive pursuit. It is the pursuit that sets up the constraint play known as “Popcorn” (trap).

Before we get into trap let’s examine a current trend in the NFL. Pre-inside zone, any team worth their salt stopped trap. Trap, power and power sweep were the basis of the NFL run game. Then, people started to pass and utilize area blocking. The demands on an Over Front 3 technique started to shift into a more penetrating, rush the passer, split the zone double type of player. The Warren Sapp’s of the world became gold. In the last few years, however, you can see a cyclical return to the use of trap as a constraint play, and NFL teams are garnering big yards. The Rocket Sweep and the roll-out pass game Red utilized lends itself to horizontal and vertical DL movement, and the trap take perfect advantage.


Again, bear with the diagram.

The left slot goes in Rocket motion to the right, and the QB opens up to his left (which is the same as if he were reversing out to pitch the sweep), and hands to the FB running trap to the right.

As we mentioned, this little series had the power to make defenses worry about the width of the field, and then make them pay when they rallied too strongly to the sweep. The real beauty, and what Red loved to do, was the Play Action Passes and Screens off this action.

To wrap up this article, we will look at Red’s best play action pass (Popcorn Pass), and then some of the screens he would throw off it.


Rocket motion, fake the trap, and boot to the smash route. Very much like an inverted Buck waggle. This was a simple play, yet with defensive secondary concerned with filling the alley on Rocket, it was a highly productive part of the playbook.

Another important difference between Mouse and Red was in protection. On Popcorn Pass, 7 blockers stayed in. Red also had an 8-man protection call “Everybody Block” (love it). With the ability to utilize more than just the 6-man protection Mouse and his heirs utilize, Red was not merely providing more protection for his quarterback, he was preparing to ATTACK the blitz.

The Superback screen in Mouse’s version of the run and shoot is deadly. One of those ‘just when you think you have everything covered’ type of plays. Everything looks like roll-out (60/61 protection), and then the OL releases up field and the FB curls around for the dump off screen. It is just so easy to discount a skill player staying in to pass protect.


That’s right, I went there……

What Red added was the ability to manufacture multiple screen looks (off roll and play action), using multiple screen men (FB and slots), while keeping it simple with one screen scheme (the OL just had ‘screen left’ and ‘screen right’). Again, it is so easy to ignore an offensive skill player tied up in protection, especially with so many moving pieces (rocket, trap, play action pass) going on around you.

In the Popcorn Pass diagram, you can see how easy it would be to slip screen the FB to the left, and also how easy it would be to slip screen the slot who stayed in to block to the right. Some of the biggest gainers in Franklin College history have come off simple dump offs to a screen man with a wall of undersized, but willing to cut block their grandmother down, offensive linemen in front.

I’m not advocating one style of run and shoot over the other. However, I cut my teeth on Red’s run and shoot attack; the offense and the man holds a special place in my heart.

Red Faught passed away during my sophomore season at Franklin College. I, along with 90 other players, attended his funeral in our game jerseys….each of us also wore a plain red baseball cap. Red always wore one on the sidelines, despite the fact Franklin’s school colors are blue and gold (I loved that about him). Obviously, that is why people called him “Red”. I had the pleasure of speaking to him a few times, and that philosophy to “go reckless and stay loose” (which Ellison coined and Red so ardently advocated) applies as much to football as it does life.

“Balance?! Hell, pass!”

Right on Coach Faught, right on.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Slot Coverage Variations

After covering front matching previously, we can now explore options available to handle slot sets that are separated from the box. Typically, this is best understood from a 2-back look with a single receiver on the other side of the slot (allowing a variety of bracket looks and the linebackers matching back flow). The passing strength is immediately identified (slot) and the safety, corner, and overhang player can communicate how they would handle the 2-man routes out of this. These methods can also be applied independently to each side (split-field) when facing 1-back, as well.
With two receivers split from the formation (slot) you end up with a 3-on-2 advantage for the defense. As we covered before, there is a variety of ways to handle this. In attempt to tackle two things at once, we’ll cover these concepts using Saban-speak (out of Nick Saban’s playbooks). It should be noted that Saban’s “system” is extremely concise, flexible, and modular (in its application). What comes with those benefits is a dictionary full of terminology to communicate every conceivable action and response on the field. We’ll use his method as a way to keep a central thematic framework, but these concepts are relative to what everyone else does (so don’t get hung up on the verbiage).

The first is basic Cover 3 Sky (“Fist”) with what amounts to be the old “country cover 3”. Fist brings the overhang player down outside of #2 receiver serving as primary force. This defender will drop into the seam and not carry any route by #2 deeper than 12 yards and jump the first receiver to the flat. The corner would play all of #1 receiver vertical (or #2) out and up. The free safety would play middle of the field to the #2 receiver. Because these two receivers are handled by these three players, additional receivers (releasing back) would be immediately jumped by the next linebacker inside (Will) unless #1 or #2 released inside.
Examples of matching in Fist

  • Vs 1 back – the FS will check to Rip/Liz rules (match left/right away side) and man #1 and #2.
  • Vs Wide slot split (horizontal stretch) – with a great deal of space underneath to cover, a “TOKYO” (smash rule) call can be made to have the corner take all short routes and have the overhang defender carry a vertical stem.
Sky (Fist) remains an all-purpose coverage solution to slot, but can face limitations with quick 2-man games against the overhang player.


We’ve covered robber coverage before and this version would be just like Virginia Tech plays it. This is best against a tight #2 with the FS dropping into the seam and the overhang player immediately expanding to the curl. This isn’t much different than TCU’s ‘2 Read’ (covered before). The FS acts as the robber, reading #2-to-#1, playing the front hook with a #2-to-QB-to-Alley fit progression.
The corner immediately drops to the deep third with the overhang defender jumping first receiver to the flat. With the corner committing to the deep half, any vertical route by #2 will be bracketed inside-out by the FS and corner.
examples of matching in robber

Robber coverage remains arguably one of the best run down solutions, especially to the field.  1-back looks can be handled by robber, but do not provide the leverage security that 2-back does.


This is traditional cover 2 cloud with the FS over the top in deep half coverage and defenders in the curl and flat. The overhang player will align inside #2 and the corner outside of #1.  With two outside underneath zone defenders on top of two split receivers, you have the ability to aggressively attack the quick game.  With any slot coverage, you are only as good as your answer to the smash route.  With true ‘Cora’, the force corner will sink in the flat (playing “TOKYO”) and the overhang will carry #2 vertical.

examples of matching in Cover 2  

Cover 2 is great against quick game and perimeter run game.  How a defense matches vertical routes in Cover 2 will typically be its weak spot.
One adjustment to this Cover 2 look is known as “Leach”. It is exactly the same with the exception of the overhang defender is man-to-man #2 (slot/curl). This would afford the (usually exceptional) slot receiver to be double-covered underneath or deep with the surrounding zone defenders.


Thumbs is a 3-on-2 quarters principle that can morph itself into swipe bracket when only one receiver is vertical. The FS will double #1 or #2 from inside out with the corner playing deep third outside.  The overhang player is the sole underneath defender and will take first shallow out / in receiver between #1 & #2.
examples of matching in thumbs 


Quarters is great against vertical game and play-action, but the lack of underneath support can cause perimeter leverage issues the offense can exploit.

Adding this as a final thought, Cover 5 is the man-under with deep half help. The FS will rob everything inside with the ability to double either receiver deep.  I didn’t provide any illustrations as it is pretty self-explanatory and is the ideal passing coverage.  The FS will rob everything from the inside.  Because the corner (your best cover guy) will be man-to-man on #1 outside wide “on an island”, you will typically have a 2-on-1 cone/bracket on #2 between the deep safety and the overhang player.